A day after the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, on Saturday, 7 October 2023, the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas took Israel by surprise by launching its most lethal assault on many Israeli-occupied bordering regions. The dawn attack was planned to coincide with the Jewish Sabbath day and a religious holiday at the culmination of a weeklong Sukkot festival of Jews. The stealth, scale, complexity, and speed of the assault contributed to the shock factor of the operation. At the same time, Israeli intelligence failure was exposed, with its forces being caught off-guard by the attack.
Entitled “Al-Aqsa Storm”, a multipronged attack by air, sea and land ensued following the firing of thousands of rockets into the Israel-controlled territory. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, said the fighters penetrated the border fence; they arrived with paragliders and via the sea. While some of the arms employed by Hamas were old, several were new and were not spotted before. Similarly, many of the tactics used by the combatants were unprecedented.
Regarding air attacks, the surveillance towers of Israel were deactivated by the initial attack using quadcopter drones, which were used for the first time by Hamas for such a confrontation. Drones also demolished automatic machine guns that Israel had set up on its border barricades, eliminating a crucial way for it to defy a land assault. Blinding the Israeli surveillance, Hamas on-ground fighters entered by bulldozing the border fence and charged through towns. Storming into the southern part of Israel-occupied territory from the Gaza Strip, the combatants managed to assault Israeli military equipment and briefly took control of many local neighbourhoods. They targeted soldiers and civilians and captured several Israelis.
Notwithstanding Israel’s massive retaliatory attack, the US assistance for Israel, and the suspension of international aid for Palestine post-Al-Aqsa Storm, the Israeli intelligence lapse and the consequent Hamas assault will haunt Israel for years to come.
Another highlight of the attack was the enormous onslaught of rockets. More than 2000 rockets were launched, targetting southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which overwhelmed Israel’s first line of defence, i.e. its Iron Dome system. A swarm of armed paragliders attacked Israeli military installations. Though slow in speed, they not only augmented the shock factor but also facilitated Hamas in circumventing the barricades on land.
The operation proved to Israel and the rest of the world Hamas’ competence in conducting immaculately orchestrated raids and swiftly capturing substantial areas across the boundary of Gaza. The episode not only was effective in quickly attaining the group’s objective but also unveiled the strategies employed by Israel.
The Palestinian State, in its official statement released on the day of the Hamas attack, maintained that the “criminal and destructive practices of the Israeli occupation forces against the Palestinian people and the continuation of injustice…is the reason behind this explosive situation…” Similarly, the commander-in-chief of Hamas’s Al-Qassam Brigades, Mohammed Deif, stated that the group carried out the attack due to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, its persistent blockade of Gaza, its atrocities against Muslims, primarily the violation of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
Maintaining secrecy of the attack was of utmost importance for Hamas. According to the statement of a Hamas leader, Ali Barakeh, only about half a dozen leaders of the group were aware of the planned attack. A former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yaakov Amidror, considers the Hamas operation “a major failure” for Israel. He believes that the attack reflects that Israel’s intelligence capabilities in Gaza were not up to the mark. More than two days after the initiation of the assault, Hamas operatives were still fighting the Israeli army inside the occupied territory. Israeli ground forces took nearly three days to arrive at the Gaza border. Meanwhile, allegedly more than 100 Israelis were in Hamas custody in Gaza. Also, around 1,200 people died, and more than 2,900 bore injuries during the Hamas operation.
The internal political polarisation in Israel and national developments like legal reforms were also a diversion for the security apparatus. Israel’s intelligence services might have been unsuccessful in warning in time. However, the priorities of decision-makers also played a role, as the political leadership apparently disregarded warnings from intelligence sources. For the Israel Defence Forces, much of their concentration was on the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian President and his Fatah group. Another focus of Israel’s attention was the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Gaza did not factor in the list of probable sources of trouble.
The Hamas operation has raised questions for the Israeli government on possibly how their hyped intelligence and security forces were caught so off-guard by the multifarious attack. The blatant assault on several Israeli-occupied towns and military stations represents a significant breach of Israel’s defences, creating a sense of alarm for the Israeli population. For several hours, one of the strongest military power in the Middle East appeared ineffective in the face of a much weaker adversary, rendering many villages defenceless for most of the day.
Members of the Palestinian group itself have maintained that they were surprised by the lack of resistance shown by the Israeli Army. Hamas managed to mislead Israel by showing no intention of any confrontation. It created a façade that it was not prepared for an armed rendezvous, while behind the scenes, the group was engaged in strenuous preparations. So much so that Hamas built a pretend Israeli-occupied village in Gaza where the group rehearsed their assault and even recorded videos of the drills. However, Israel misread Hamas training as posturing.
Besides, in order to counter one-off attacks from Hamas, Israel relied on its Iron Dome system. However, while Hamas overwhelmed the Iron Dome on the one hand, it also concocted a parallel tactic to raid on foot. This is where Israel failed as it was not prepared for an assault through the heavily fortified border, and that too concurrently in multiple areas on a major holiday.
Notwithstanding Israel’s massive retaliatory attack, the US assistance for Israel, and the suspension of international aid for Palestine post-Al-Aqsa Storm, the Israeli intelligence lapse and the consequent Hamas assault will haunt Israel for years to come. Hamas’ operational success resulted from classic long-term deceptive tactics. Hamas’s attack revealed the deficiencies in not only Israeli intelligence forces but also its military, which, as the episode disclosed, instead of land troops, depends mainly on air force and commandos. The Palestinian group that carried out the attack must be aware of the reaction it would elicit from Israel and the West, and though Hamas does not represent all Palestinians, the attack reflects the sentiment of a people who feel abandoned by the international community and have nothing to lose.